To See Ourselves in Telescopes

AUTHOR: TeaOtter
RECIPIENT: Serenissima
CHARACTER: Zatanna
CONTINUITY: The last part of this story takes place shortly before the flashback events in Seven Soldiers, which supposedly ends a week before Infinite Crisis.
DISCLAIMER: Zatanna belongs to DC; Sabine belongs to Ann Patchett. Only the mistakes belong to me.
SUMMARY: I loved to see her in the paper. It made me fiercely proud, as if she were someone from my home town who won medals at the Olympics.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I borrowed Sabine from The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett. It's a wonderful book, but you needn't have read it for this story to make sense.

To See Ourselves in Telescopes

I met Zatanna for the first time in Las Vegas.

Rick Tate had been a magician since the proud days of Vaudeville. Never famous, never the kind of performer who made it into the movies. But he was well-known and well-liked by just about everyone in the profession. When he retired, his friends threw him the biggest party they could afford. Everyone who was anyone was there, along with everyone else they could imagine.

Parsifal had his own invitation, of course, although he was young enough still to be "the new kid." I wasn't exactly invited, although Parsifal had been told to bring "that pretty assistant of yours, what's her name." I was more new than he was, then. We'd been together for less than a year, and it hadn't yet occurred to me to be offended at the way I was included largely as an extension of him. It was Parsifal, or Parsifal-and-Sabine; never Sabine for herself.

I didn't find the parties as awkward as it might sound. Magicians, by the nature of their profession, love to talk. They don't mind a pretty girl sitting quietly in the shadows. They even understood the way I followed Parsifal with my eyes, watching him tell stories and flirt as effortlessly as breathing. I was still so painfully in love with him then, and everyone knew.

Rick had known Zatanna's father for decades, and Zatanna herself long enough that she called him Uncle Rick. She was late arriving, but Rick laughed off her apologies and dragged her into the inner circle of cronies telling stories that were old long before the war.

Everyone knew her story. That she'd been her father's assistant, and his apprentice. That he'd left her his act when he disappeared a few years ago, and she had gone haring off after him. Oh, they said she could do real magic, too, the kind that was more than distraction and slight of hand. But it was her boldness, and the way she dressed, that made the other girls talk about her in the powder room. She'd come to the party in clothes I would've blushed to wear onstage at that point, and she laughed and told stories as loudly as any of the men.

There were no female magicians back then, really. She was new, and bright, and dangerous to our careful little world of illusions. And we loved her for it.

It shouldn't have hurt to see her laughing with Parsifal, their dark heads so close together I couldn't see the difference between her hair and his. It shouldn't have mattered when he kissed her hand. It was nothing, it was something he did all the time with beautiful women and old ladies and little girls too young to do more than gape at him. But I was still young enough to think that he might fall in love with me someday, and if with me, then why not with someone like her?

I meant to leave the room. I didn't realize I'd left the house until I found myself staring blankly up at the stars. The back yard had been abandoned hours ago when the sun went down. It was too cool to be in the pool, a desert night swiftly replacing the warmth of the day. It was quiet enough to hear the murmurs and laughter and clinking glasses from the party, not too disturbed by my sudden exit.

When I heard footsteps behind me, I didn't turn around. When he noticed, or when someone mentioned it to him, Parsifal had always been quick to apologize, to make me feel less excluded. It wasn't about me, he would explain again, with that awkward confusion in his eyes. I would agree, if only to make him smile again, and we would go back to the party. It was Parsifal-and-Sabine, and everyone knew.

"Sabine, isn't it?" Zatanna stopped next to me and held out a bottle of beer, the condensation glittering in the reflected lights of the house. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to step on your toes in there."

I took the beer, and told her the truth. "You didn't."

"Hmm." She took a drink of her own beer and didn't call me out on the lie. "You do know he's gay?"

"Everyone knows." Parsifal-and-Sabine. I stared up hard while she looked down at the pool.

"You know," she said after a pause, "there are planes where everything's upside down. So every night you get to walk on the stars."

I didn't know anything about magic then, and I didn't understand. "How do they fly a plane upside down?"

"Fly? Oh, you thought I meant airplanes."

"Didn't you?" I wondered if I would feel more embarrassed for asking, or not asking. "Then what?"

"Never mind. Let's grab a couple more beers, and I'll tell you about planes."

We spent the rest of the party under the apple tree in the corner of Rick's carefully manicured lawn. I found out that planes were like other planets, but not quite, and I found out that magicians like to tell stories even when the magic is more about demons and spells than tricks. I'd never been any further from Los Angeles than Chicago, and there I was listening to Zatanna talk about thought forms and alternate dimensions. It seemed like so much science fiction.

I remember that I asked her, at one point, why there weren't real magicians out there healing the sick and stopping wars. And the question made her laugh.

"You know," she said, "most people ask about the money."

I knew this one. "There's never any money in magic."

"Hear, hear!" She raised her beer, which was empty. So was mine. "It's simple. Doctors heal people. Diplomats stop wars. I'm a magician."

And that made sense in the way that things make sense only when it's too late at night and you've had too much to drink. It made me look over at the house and realize that the party had long since wound down. From the look of things, it was likely that Parsifal had left some time while I wasn't looking. "I think I'm stranded."

It was the first time we'd gone anywhere that I hadn't been looking.

While I was still thinking about that Zatanna stood up and pulled me to my feet. The world spun a bit unsteadily. "Don't worry; magicians can get their friends home safely."

Then she said something else I didn't catch, something which made the world spin faster for a moment, then stop in the sudden fashion of a carnival ride lurching to a halt. I was glad to see grass under my feet, and listen to the flick-flick-flick of lawn sprinklers from another house. We were standing in front of my parents' house in Los Angeles, somehow, and whereas it wasn't where I'd intended to stay the night, it was safe and familiar as only home can be.

"There you go, safe and sound." And she smiled that same pleased smile that any magician has for a trick well done.

I was determined not to say anything profound, or profoundly stupid, so I settled for "Thank you," and a nod.

She tipped her hat to me and disappeared.

I didn't see her again for a few years. I heard that she'd left the life; I heard that she'd joined the Justice League. I heard at least once that she died, but that was the kind of rumor I never believed.

I saw her, very briefly, at her father's memorial service. I'd only seen John Zatara once, on stage, Parsifal and I sitting breathlessly spellbound throughout the show. I knew why so many people came to say goodbye. I didn't go up to shake her hand. What do you say when the world ends?

After that, we ran into each other from time to time over the years. There are only so many venues, and so many bars that magicians frequent. Everyone knows everyone; magicians are a small group. Parsifal and I caught Zatanna's show once in Washington, and twice in New York. We spotted her in the audience of our own shows a few times, but Parsifal never called on her to volunteer. She was too famous for the audience to believe that we hadn't arranged it, he said.

I pointed out the articles to him every time I found them. Pictures of her with Superman or the Flash would sometimes make it into the local paper to be pondered over breakfast. What could a magician do that Superman couldn't? I asked him. A columnist for the New Yorker would review her show, always with a busty caricature of her in top hat and fishnet stockings. How much of her stage show was real magic? Parsifal would ask. How did she find time to do both?

I knew it was silly, but I loved to see her in the paper. It made me fiercely proud, as if she were someone from my home town who won medals at the Olympics. As if meeting her once at a party made us somehow connected.

Zatanna didn't come to Parsifal's funeral, of course. I hadn't expected her to.

A year later, I was in Las Vegas again, but not for a party. It was my first time performing alone for a large audience, and I wanted to be somewhere I could leave if I failed. A place full of familiar strangeness and strange familiarities, like performing my variations of the tricks Parsifal had taught me from the other side. Everything was the same, and nothing was the same.

I knew Zatanna was performing across the street at the Belagio; her face appeared and disappeared from the marquee in a puff of smoke every few minutes. I didn't assume I'd see her, much less that I would run into her at a cafe at three in the morning.

Parsifal would've said that Vegas was like that.

I stopped at her table, uncertain whether to say hello or just move on. But she smiled when she looked up at me. "Sabine?"

"It's been a while, hasn't it?" She hardly looked a day older.

She surprised me by standing up and hugging me fiercely. "I heard about Parsifal," she said into my shoulder. "He was a good man."

"Thank you." I knew what to say to that. I'd been saying it all year. "I miss him, every day."

"Have you eaten?" she asked.

I nodded. "Last night, even."

She smiled sympathetically. "First night jitters?"

"Bad dreams." They were less common than they had been, but they still came.

"Me, too." Zatanna looked subdued for a moment, then seemed to make up her mind. "Let's blow this pop stand."

"Sure."

I was more prepared this time. I knew she was talking backwards, but I still couldn't understand what she said. There was the same momentary vertigo and snap as we teleported, and then it was dark, dark in the way that it only gets in the middle of nowhere. We were outside, and not in a city, and that's all I knew.

"Where are we?" I asked, blinking hard. I could feel rocks uneven under my feet, but I couldn't see them.

"Lake Mead," she said, holding my arm while my eyes adjusted.

I could just make out the ripples on the surface of the water, shining up at the moon. "You do come and go quickly."

My little joke made her laugh. "I haven't been to Kansas in a long time."

"And I've never been there. But I've been to Nebraska." We found a clear spot to sit and look out at the lake while I told her about finding Parsifal's family. Nebraska in the middle of the winter. Small towns in the middle of nothing. I had finally been somewhere strange enough that it might as well have been another planet.

It was still nothing compared to her own travels. Zatanna told me about trips to Hell, and Heaven, or at least its outskirts. This time I could listen past my own astonishment at the places she described to the offhand explanations for why she'd gone there. Monsters that would swallow the universe. Demons fighting in the streets. Plots to change the past, and the future.

When she paused, I asked, "How often is the world in danger, really? It's hard to tell, from what's in the paper."

"It depends on how you want to look at it." She turned to look out across the lake. "Are airplanes in any danger of falling out of the sky? Not really, not if everyone's doing their jobs. That's why they have mechanics and air traffic controllers and all the other people looking out for them."

I thought about my own life, and its course across the years. All the times it might have crashed, without any warning. "I think you're a little more than a glorified mechanic."

"Well," she turned back to me. "These days we spend more time catching planes before they hit the ground. But you know what they say about landings..."

I thought for a moment about hugging her, but she shook it off too fast. "You know," she said, standing up again, "I brought you out here for a reason. Something other than listening to me moan about my life."

"Really?" I followed her to the edge of the lake.

"Oh, yeah. Retaw eb dilos."

"What?" But I caught them that time, the sounds of words spoken backwards, and I was trying to parse them out when she stepped out onto the lake.

"Do you remember? I was talking about walking on the stars. This is pretty close, don't you think?"

I took her hand and reached out with one foot to the lake. I couldn't hear the water slapping at the shore anymore, but I was still more than half expecting my foot to pass easily through the surface. But the water was solid, and without the ripples from the wind, it water was as smooth as glass. It was like walking on a mirror, or into the sky.

It was dizzying just to stand there still, but Zatanna grabbed my hand and spun me around and around. With the stars both above and below us, it felt like dancing in the middle of the universe.

"See?" she said, laughing. "Stars."